Trigger warning: mention of bullying, harassment, abuse
Taare Zameen Par remains one of the few Bollywood movies that have presented a very real portrayal of what life at boarding schools is like. The movie focuses on the life of a young boy, Ishaan (played by Darsheel Safary) who is sent to a boarding school by his parents because they are unsatisfied with his academic performance. There he meets an art teacher, Ram (played by Aamir Khan) who realizes that Ishaan has dyslexia, and acts as a supportive figure for him as he discovers his true potential.
Apart from the great plot, and the plethora of emotions that it makes the audience feel, it also sheds light on a very important issue predominant in countries like India and Pakistan. This issue, is the authoritarian, toxic and abusive environment in boarding schools, particularly for young boys. Although the movie largely portrays the manipulative and abusive nature of teachers in such schools, many students at such schools also turn out to be bullies. For those who face this abuse, it could take them the rest of their lives to recover from it.
When I first saw the movie, it really hit home. I have only been enrolled at such a school for a very short period of time, but the accounts that I have heard from friends and acquaintances that have spent years in boarding has only led me to the conclusion that at least all major boarding schools in our context, harbor a much more toxic atmosphere than the movie portrays. In Pakistan, a majority of the top cadet colleges, and many other colleges/universities too, still have in place a very toxic and abusive system of hierarchy between seniors and juniors, one that even managements acknowledge but do nothing about. New entrants into the college are mostly always subjected to 'ragging' by the seniors, which involves bullying, harassment and humiliation. It has been normalized to an extent, where it is considered a part of 'college life' in most places, and students are expected to adhere to it. Such atmosphere becomes the breeding ground for manipulation, violence and even sexual crimes like pederasty. The system is flawed as such, that these seniors also have the authority to cause harm to the academic standings of these students. So, those who stand against such abuse, are boycotted by the seniors, which affects their academics. Thus, in an authoritarian atmosphere, a hierarchy is established and abused.
This abuse is not limited to students, and teachers in such colleges also resort to physical retribution for the smallest of errors. Students are tortured, even if they refuse to comply as witnesses to acts that the management may consider mischievous. In such atmosphere, teachers with manipulative, controlling and vindictive personalities not only get away with what they do, but with time establish credibility in these institutions.
Thus, my opinion of the majority of boarding schools in Pakistan has always been negative – not just the culture that these schools have adopted, but also the idea of such institutions, and how they are structured and designed. I think the enforcement of a jail-like routine could not be justified as teaching discipline. Such a mundane, repetitive and controlled lifestyle has to be counterproductive for the mental development for the students. It must repress their creativity and their true potential.
However, to criticize the movie for not presenting an even truer – or darker portrayal of boarding schools would be unfair. Perhaps one movie could only do so much, which it did with quite truth in it. What should be called out though, are such institutions, that continue to exist in our societies, and affect the lives of countless young children. I think these issues require intervention at a policy level, where such institutions all over the country should be regulated and structurally reformed in terms of their code of conduct, or they should cease to exist. People who have misused their positions and have affected the lives of students should be brought to accountability. People, as parents must also continually investigate, and introspect about the places they send their kids to, in the name of education. Taare Zameen Par serves as a great reminder for this introspection, through its truthful and honest portrayal of our schools.